Tuesday, 17 February 2015

A General Discussion About Concepts


 
Concepts as Abstract Objects

Although there may be the danger of reifying concepts; there's also the danger of not reifying concepts.

Let's just say that concepts aren't only brain states or only abstract objects. Though they aren't only “capacities” either.

Say that brain states are part of the story. That story wouldn't be complete without capacities or human practices. And, possibly, that story wouldn't be complete without there being abstract objects as well.

We don't need a single underpinning for/to the nature of concepts.

Of course as soon as you see concepts as abstract objects, there's the danger that you'll be accused of reifying concepts.

Thus X wrote:

Treating concepts in this way reifies them when in fact possession of a concept is not the acquisition of any particular object at all.”

It's easy to see the problems with reification. Some philosophers have spent their lives arguing against such a thing. Others reject the existence of any abstract objects. Despite that, I'm not convinced.

Sure, concepts aren't like cups or dogs. They aren't even like atoms. Nonetheless, they may be like numbers or propositions. In other words, sometimes we reify because we have no (philosophical) choice but to do so.

In other words, “the acquisition of a concept”, for example, is the acquisition of something. It can't be acquisition (or capacity or “use”) alone.

If concepts exist before their application, then what kind of existence do they have?

Philosophers often use the words “abstract object”.

Are abstract objects things? Are concepts abstract objects? All I can say is many things which are said about propositions, numbers and even equations can, perhaps, also be said about concepts.

Or is it a “category mistake” to fuse concepts with, say, propositions?

On a Fregean reading (as far as I recall), concepts play their parts in what Frege called Thoughts (basically, abstract atemporal propositions) and thus they must be equally abstract.

In other words, some philosophers don't seem to distinguish concepts from features which are simply related to concepts: such as the criteria for the “possession” or “mastery” of concepts.

For example, X wrote:

To possess the concept green is to be capable of applying the concept in ways that other concept users would accept as viable and the only way that such application can be achieved is via representations.”

That's about the use or “mastery” of concepts; which is a different question to: What are concepts? If we're to “apply” concepts, then surely they must already exist.

Perhaps this is a indirect argument (if an unconvincing one) against Wittgenstein's use-theory position on words - as it is now applied to concepts.

Mental Representations?

In discussions on representations (in relation to concepts) it's sometimes unclear what people mean by that word.

If one assumes that representations exist in the mind-brain, then they can't be “manifested publicly”. Thus representations, on this reading, must be the vocal or written expressions of concepts.

At an initial level, one can see why mental representations have to do some work in a theory of concepts. After all, even if someone claims that concepts are abstract objects like propositions (in that they're “available to all” regardless of their particular expressions), it would still need to be the case that individuals have access to them via some medium – i.e., a mental or other kind of representation. And that representation, if mental, must surely must be encoded in the brain.

So we can move from brain-state, to representation and then to the vocal expression of a concept; though the concept itself can still be deemed as an abstract object in the sense that it's available to all. (Anything that's only a representation - or brain state - can't be available to all.)

Capacities?

Just as it can be argued that concepts aren't abstract objects, so it can also be argued that representations aren't brain states. Here again reification is rejected and “capacities” enter the picture. In other words,


If “concepts are capacities”, then representations are also capacities.


Or as X puts it:

Where many theorists take representations to be objects of fact I take capacities to represent to be instrumental. So I reject inner representation as such.”

This argument seems similar to Gilbert Ryles' position on what are seen to be (in folk psychology) “mental faculties”: such as “will” and “intelligence”. To put it basically, the will or intelligence isn't a part of the brain as such. It is, to use this terminology, a “capacity”.

However, don't concepts and representations both belong to different species to that of will or intelligence? Intelligence is a kind of collective term; whereas a representation or a concept can be singular. Another way of putting this (as Ryle did) is to say that one must display intelligence in order to be intelligent. However, must we display concepts and representations in order for them to exist?

There is a problem with the idea of concepts actually being what people call “capacities”.

Isn't it that concepts are displayed or used - and that constitutes the capacity? We determine the meaning of a concept through our concept-using capacities. However, that would mean that concepts can't be the same thing as capacities. They are used - or displayed - by what are called our capacities.

Basically, is the argument this? -


concepts = capacities
 
(i.e. concepts and capacities are numerically identical)

It can now be said, as someone did say, that “one learns of the concept itself and the capacity of what the concept relates in one fell swoop”.

However, I can't see how that works. There must be something which pre-dates the capacity and even which proceeds “what the concept relates [to]”.

If the concept is learned through use; then what was it before you learned what it is through its use? In other words, the concept [cat] can only be involved in use or a capacity if it already exists and has some kind of meaning or identity.

Basically, something (or some things) pre-dates both use and our capacities.

The interesting thing is how this ties in with what's said about concepts-in-use or as they're known through “procedures”. In that sense, all reasoning about those issues needn't concern itself with the metaphysical (or ontological) questions of the existence (or the kind of existence) of concepts.

X said:

Concepts are applied via procedures (hence the relevance of Wittgenstein's insights regarding meaning and use).”

Isn't it more a case that concepts (or words) gain their identity - or even their meaning - through what some people call “procedures”? (Excuse my use of the word “identity” in this context; though it seems like an apt word.)

Then again, in order to be applied it can be said that concepts must already have a meaning - or identity - which is separable from that identity coming entirely through their use (or through procedure). What I mean by that is that in order to use a concept within a certain procedure (or set thereof), it must already have an identity of some kind otherwise how would we know how to use it? Sure, it can gain a modified - or new – identity/meaning within particular acts of use; though before that it must have some kind of identity.

6 comments:

  1. Hi Paul,

    I suspect I may be person "X" quoted several times above. Perhaps I can offer some points of clarification.

    You write: “'the acquisition of a concept', for example, is the acquisition of something." You suggest that this reification is necessary because we have no philosophical choice, but in fact we do have a choice. The choice we have is to regard concepts as methods of communication: as techniques or tools even (although this is getting close to the thingification we are trying to avoid)

    The "something" that we acquire when we learn a concept is a way of representing a state of affairs through the use of a representational — invariably a symbolic — token. There are lots of ways of representing absence but there is absolutely no THING that corresponds to the concept.

    Later you write: \\If we're to “apply” concepts, they surely they must already exist.// In a sense I think you are right, but we need to be very careful not to posit concepts in order to explain concepts. The question to ask is whether non-concept users (nonverbals) are capable of anything that might correspond to some of the linguistic concepts we use. The answer is yes. Many non-human animals, and infant humans too, form expectations of states of affairs that when thwarted are a cause of surprise. This is precisely where we get our concept of absence from. To register an absence you first have to have an expectation of presence which is then denied.

    So concepts are just various symbolic ways of representing different states of affairs.

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  2. No problem with quoting me BTW.

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  3. Oh and perhaps I should also say, as cryptically as I can, that certain moderators we know of are sorely lacking in tact and diplomacy. Fortunately most of the contributors are considerate interlocutors — you being one of them.

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  4. “The choice we have is to regard concepts as methods of communication: as techniques or tools even (although this is getting close to the thingification we are trying to avoid).”

    There are two possible cases of pragmatism (if not in the philosophical sense) being used here. One, to see concepts as only “techniques or tools”, etc. Two, the pragmatic move of rejecting the philosophical problems entirely. That could be: reject the ontology of concepts (perhaps they have none if they're not abstract “objects”.); ignore the mental reality (that too is perhaps ontological); and seeing them as “tools” may also be seen as an rejection of epistemological problems.

    “The "something" that we acquire when we learn a concept is a way of representing a state of affairs through the use of a representational — invariably a symbolic — token.”

    Again, *what* do we learn or acquire?

    On a technical note, you take concepts to represent states of affairs. They may well do so. Is this a case of juxtaposing concepts? Can a single atomic concept be seen as representing a state of affairs which can be seen as molecular? (Just as Fregean Thoughts are molecular and made up of senses/concepts.) If the proposition *Snow is white* is molecular, then that could be because the truth-condition (or state of affairs) is molecular (involving snow and the universal *whiteness*).

    Now I'm mixing up a whole bunch of terms here to help state my position. Frege didn't really talk about states of affairs in this context; though he did talk about referents and extensions. So my misuse won't be too problematic.

    I personally can't see how a single concept can represent *John eating ice-cream*; though I can see that the concepts [John], [eating] and [ice-cream] together may do so. It's also tricky to establish how concepts like this are put together.

    Images, I suppose, can be be seen as atomic even if what they represent have parts. The image has no parts; though what it represents has parts.

    “There are lots of ways of representing absence but there is absolutely no THING that corresponds to the concept.”

    True; though how would a concept that represented *John's absence* be different from one that represented *Mike's absence* – when both are absent? It could even be said that John's absence doesn't have a concept at all. Other things may represent it – though not a single concept and perhaps not even a group of them. John's absence, surely, would have to be established and communicated (even to the subject/utterer himself) with statements/propositions. A picture or image of John's absence would also be identical to a picture of Mike's absence. Thus there being no elephant in the room is effectively the same as there being no crocodile in the room until that negative state of affairs (as it were) is given linguistic clothing.

    “.... but we need to be very careful not to posit concepts in order to explain concepts.”

    But I don't think I said that. I said that “something” must exist before concept-use, etc. That may be the problem with thinking in terms of reification. That is, of concepts-as-objects existing before concepts are used. What proceeds concept-use needn't be concepts. That's not to say I'm sure what does proceed concept-use. Having said that, I did argue that concepts-as-abstract- objects/entities may/do exist before their linguistic or behavioural expression/use. However, clearly something that's purely abstract can't be the same as an individual and particular linguistic or behavioural expression of it. In the terminology of abstract propositions, the same proposition can have an indefinite amount of formulations. Similarly, perhaps, with concepts.

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  5. “Many non-human animals, and infant humans too, form expectations of states of affairs that when thwarted are a cause of surprise.”

    This is based on research, so it's hard to comment – except in the obvious way. Can't it all be accounted for in terms of gene-based behavioural actions? I don't want to be too reductionist here; though even a “baby smile” can be given such an interpretation (whether it's right or wrong I don't know).

    I wrote a piece on animals concepts a while ago in which I focussed on image-concepts (for animals). I have a feeling that I won't agree with myself now. The simple point here is that mental images can't be proxies for concepts; though they may have a role to play in your examples.


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  6. I'm largely in agreement with you Paul. Here are a couple of thoughts, mostly echoing your observations.

    "*what* do we learn or acquire?"
    We learn ways of communicating. We acquire skills.

    "Is this a case of juxtaposing concepts? Can a single atomic concept be seen as representing a state of affairs which can be seen as molecular? (Just as Fregean Thoughts are molecular and made up of senses/concepts.) If the proposition *Snow is white* is molecular, then that could be because the truth-condition (or state of affairs) is molecular (involving snow and the universal *whiteness*)."

    Yes, I suppose it does. Gareth Evans had something relevant to say in this respect. His "Generality Constraint" states:

    "...if a subject can be credited with the thought that a is F, then he must have the conceptual resources for entertaining the thought that a is G, for every property of being G of which he has a conception." (1982, p. 104)

    On page 100 he writes:
    "The thought that John is happy has something in common with the thought that Harry is happy, and the thought that John is happy has something in common with the thought that John is sad."

    "I personally can't see how a single concept can represent *John eating ice-cream*"

    Why not? A concept can represent anything we wish — that's the power of symbolisation surely.

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